13 January 2014

The Only Initiative I Acknowledge

“Where are women?” [asks Shevek, physicist/anarchist]

Pae laughed. Oiie smiled and asked, “In what sense?”

“All senses. I met women at the party last night — five, ten — hundreds of men. None were scientists, I think. Who were they?”

“Wives. One of them was my wife, in fact,” Oiie said with his secretive smile. “Where are other women?” “Oh, no difficulty at all there, sir,” Pae said promptly. “Just tell us your preferences, and nothing could be simpler to provide.” “One does hear some picturesque speculations about Anarresti customs, but I rather think we can come up with almost anything you had in mind,” said Oiie. Shevek had no idea what they were talking about. He scratched his bead. “Are all the scientists here men, then?” “Scientists?” Oiie asked, incredulous. Pae coughed. “Scientists. Oh, yes, certainly, they’re all men. There are some female teachers in the girls’ schools, of course. But they never get past Certificate level.”

“Why not?”

“Can’t do the math; no head for abstract thought; don’t belong. You know how it is, what women call thinking is done with the uterus! Of course, there’s always a few exceptions, Godawful brainy women with vaginal atrophy.”

“You Odonians let women study science?” Oiie inquired. “Well, they are in the sciences, yes.” “Not many, I hope.” “Well, about half.”

“I’ve always said,” said Pae, “that girl technicians properly handled could take a good deal of the load off the men in any laboratory situation. They’re actually defter and quicker than men at repetitive tasks, and more docile — less easily bored. We could free men for original work much sooner, if we used women.” “Not in my lab, you won’t,” said Oiie. “Keep ‘em in their place.” “Do you find any women capable of original intellectual work. Dr. Shevek?”

“Well, it was more that they found me. Mitis, in Northsetting, was my teacher. Also Gvarab; you know of her, I think.”

“Gvarab was a woman?” Pae said in genuine surprise, and laughed.

Oiie looked unconvinced and offended. “Can’t tell from your names, of course,” he said coldly. “You make a point, I suppose, of drawing no distinction between the sexes.”

Shevek said mildly, “Odo was a woman.”

“There you have it,” Oiie said. He did not shrug, but he very nearly shrugged. Pae looked respectful, and nodded, just as he did when old Atro maundered.

Shevek saw that he had touched in these men an impersonal animosity that went very deep. Apparently they, like the tables on the ship, contained a woman, a suppressed, silenced, bestialized woman, a fury in a cage. He had no right to tease them. They knew no relation but possession. They were possessed.

“A beautiful, virtuous woman,” Pae said, “is an inspiration to us — the most precious thing on earth.”
Shevek felt extremely uncomfortable. He got up and went over to the windows. “Your world is very beautiful,” he said. “I wish I could see more. While I must stay inside, will you give me books?” “Of course, sir! What sort?” “History, pictures, stories, anything. Maybe they should be books for children. You see, I know very little. We learn about Urras, but mostly about Odo’s times. Before that was eight and one half thousand years! And then since the Settlement of Anarres is a century and a half; since the last ship brought the last Settlers — ignorance. We ignore you; you ignore us. You are our history. We are perhaps your future. I want to learn, not to ignore. It is the reason I came. We must know each other. We are not primitive men. Our morality is no longer tribal, it cannot be. Such ignorance is a wrong, from which wrong will arise. So I come to learn.”

He spoke very earnestly. Pae assented with enthusiasm. “Exactly, sir! We are all in complete agreement with your aims!”

Oiie looked at him from those black, opaque, oval eyes, and said, “Then you come, essentially, as an emissary of your society?”

Shevek returned to sit on the marble seat by the hearth, which he already felt as his seat, his territory. He wanted a territory. He felt the need for caution. But he felt more strongly the need that had brought him across the dry abyss from the other world, the need for communication, the wish to unbuild walls. “I come,” he said carefully, “as a syndic of the Syndicate of Initiative, the group that talks with Urras on the radio these last two years. But I am not, you know, an ambassador from any authority, any institution. I hope you did not ask me as that”

“No,” Oiie said. “We asked you — Shevek the physicist. With the approval of our government and the Council of World Governments, of course. But you are here as the private guest of leu Eun University.”


“But we haven’t been sure whether or not you came with the approval of —” He hesitated.
Shevek grinned. “Of my government?”

“We know that nominally there’s no government on Anarres. However, obvi- ously there’s administration. And we gather that the group that sent you, your Syndicate, is a kind of faction; perhaps a revolutionary faction.”

“Everybody on Anarres is a revolutionary, Oiie . . . The network of administration and management is called PDC, Production and Distribution Coordination. They are a coordinating system for all syndicates, federatives, and individuals who do productive work. They do not govern persons; they administer production. They have no authority either to support me or to prevent me. They can only tell us the public opinion of us — where we stand in the social conscience. That’s what you want to know? Well, my friends and I are mostly disapproved of. Most people on Anarres dont want to leam about Urras. They fear it and want nothing to do with the propertarians. I am sorry if I am rude! It is the same here, with some people, is it not? The contempt, the fear, the tribalism. Well, so I came to begin to change that.”

“Entirely on your own initiative,” said Oiie. “It is the only initiative I acknowledge,” Shevek said, smiling, in dead earnest.

(from The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin)


  1. i feel dispossessed reading this

    1. you are dispossessed (as are all of us without wealth)---it's no accident that it's to abolitionism and feminism that anarchists turn for movement support and action.